Understanding Childhood Obesity

Obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children, adolescents, and adults. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States since the 1970s.

Obese children are above the normal weight for their age and height. To be more specific, a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex is considered obese. Learn more about BMI for children and teens or visit the Child and Teen BMI Calculator.

Understanding what causes obesity—and the health risks associated with it—helps us find solutions.

Behavioral factors

Child tying shoes

  • Eating bigger portions, or eating junk food
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Spending too much time in front of screens
  • Spending too little time doing physical activities

Environmental factors

  • Easy access to high-calorie junk foods
  • Few opportunities for physical activity
  • Lack of parks and playgrounds in some communities

Genetic factors

  • Children are at increased risk for obesity when at least one parent is obese

Medication side effects

  • Steroids, some antidepressants, and other prescription drugs can cause weight gain
  • Make sure you read the medication insert and discuss the risks with your child’s doctor

Being obese has immediate and long-term effects on physical, social, and emotional health.

It puts children at higher risk of developing other chronic health conditions and diseases like asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Socially and emotionally, children who are obese could experience anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, and social problems such as bullying.

The CDC recommends making sure children:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables—and fewer foods and beverages that are high in added sugars or solid fats
  • Get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day
  • Get enough sleep—they require more sleep than adults

These Tips for Parents offer examples of healthy snacks and ways to keep your kids active.

Also, talk to the doctor if you're worried that your child is putting on too much weight. Doctors who specialize in caring for kids and teens can balance the goals of a healthy weight with normal growth and development. They can make dietary and activity suggestions that will help too.

Other CDC sources

Childhood Overweight and Obesity

Child & Teen Healthy Weight and Obesity


The information provided is meant for a general audience. Capital BlueCross and its affiliated companies believe this health education resource provides useful information but does not assume any liability associated with its use.